The entertainment industry has confronted numerous challenges in recent times, ranging from financial woes and strikes to the overarching impact of a global pandemic. Alongside these struggles, the global divide brought on by terms like “wokeness”, “cancel culture“, and concerns over cultural appropriation has introduced a climate of caution in the realms of scriptwriting and casting.
This cautious approach is also shaped by past criticisms and a contemporary aversion to “whitewashing”. Due to this, stakeholders throughout the entertainment ecosystem, including studio directors, screenwriters, producers, and actors, find themselves adopting a careful approach to their writing and casting choices.
When you look back at some of the historical examples of whitewashing in film and TV, it’s understandable why some people felt the need to push back. However, the problem nowadays is that people are so afraid of being cancelled that they are cautioned to “play it safe”.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of history’s most celebrated composers, revealed that he received warnings about basing future plays in other parts of the world due to concerns about cultural appropriation. Given his white British background, he was instead encouraged to focus on works like Pride and Prejudice, which are quintessentially British and predominantly feature white characters from privileged backgrounds.
Webber also expressed that he might not have been permitted to create his award-winning production of Evita in today’s society. According to him, this classic, still widely revered, would face challenges due to the heightened sensitivity surrounding cultural representation and appropriation.
Yes, whitewashing was often in poor taste and even racist in the past, as were blackface and other racial stereotypes we used to see on screen; however, it does seem we are oscillating from one extreme to the other. People today appear so desperate to take offence, often on behalf of others, that those working in show business have to tread very carefully. In some cases, some even feel compelled to rewrite history entirely.
When you observe instances where companies like Disney cast “actors of colour” for roles originally depicted by white characters, it becomes apparent why some people accuse the studio of double standards and hypocrisy. These remakes, focused on “ticking the right boxes”, often compromise the quality of the productions. Negative feedback is usually attributed to racism or anti-blackness.
On the other hand, even attempts at historically accurate portrayals are not immune to scrutiny from progressive voices. Recently, award-winning actor Bradley Cooper received a lot of criticism for wearing a prosthetic nose for his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in the upcoming film Maestro. Cooper was chastised for the use of an enlarged prosthetic nose, as some accused him of playing into antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish people having big noses. Yet, as the children of Leonard Bernstein rightly observed, “Any strident complaints around this issue strike us above all as disingenuous.”
In the current era of increased “social consciousness,” the entertainment industry stands at a critical juncture where creative decisions may increasingly be driven by fear rather than genuine artistic vision. The quest for diversity or the need to not be offensive cannot reduce storytelling to a formulaic checklist. The industry’s present trajectory risks turning inclusivity into a performative spectacle, where “diverse” characters are introduced more for appearance and meeting quotas than for contributing genuine depth and significance to the overall creative work.
Despite these challenges, it’s crucial to acknowledge the significant strides made in the entertainment industry towards inclusivity and diversity. This shift is not merely about avoiding controversy or adhering to societal expectations; it’s also about enriching storytelling with a broader range of perspectives and experiences.
Films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have shown that diverse casting can lead to both critical acclaim and commercial success, proving that audiences are eager for stories that reflect a wider spectrum of humanity.
While the journey towards balancing artistic freedom with cultural sensitivity is complex, these successes illustrate the potential for the industry to evolve in a way that honours both creativity and inclusivity.
Ada Akpala is the senior content officer of The Equiano Project.